By Maria M. Lameiras
When Paula Greenfield Washington applied, at the age of forty-one, to become one of the first doctoral students in women’s studies at Emory University in 1991, only one thing gave the successful businesswoman pause.
Washington had spent more than fifteen years in private and public-sector service since earning her MBA from the University of Texas–Austin in marketing and business law, including roles in the Carter administration and a highly successful career as a consultant for labor relations arbitrations.
“I’d been out of school for quite a while. I didn’t feel comfortable taking an entrance exam,” says Washington 95PhD. Taking her business background into consideration, program administrators allowed Washington to write a letter of application instead.
“That process really made me reanalyze my life all the way back to high school. If you told me I couldn’t do something, I did it,” says Washington, who—with Isa Williams 95PhD—made up the inaugural class for the women’s studies PhD program. “I was a senior vice president of a company, and Isa a vice president of a bank. These were not traditional backgrounds for women’s studies PhD programs or other PhD programs, but I believe that was one of the reasons we were selected. They knew we could handle the pressure of starting a new program and being the guinea pigs to structure the program.”
During her studies, Washington was active on the committee convened to create the Center for Women at Emory (CWE). “A group of dedicated professors and staff had been trying to get a women’s center at Emory for ten years and kept getting turned down. [Editor's note: also in this issue, see "Shaped by a Crucible Experience: The CWE at Emory," an account of the formation of the Center for Women at Emory.] I suggested that it might be helpful to present a true business proposal for the center with a five-year plan for growth,” says Washington, who helped draft the pitch. It was accepted and the center was established in 1992.
Meanwhile, she was working on her dissertation in conjunction with Goizueta Business School. Using a database of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, heads of major nonprofits, presidents of universities, and other business databases, Washington created a survey for CEOs, organizational heads, and their direct reports that would determine if leadership qualities truly differed by gender, as was the accepted school of thought. The survey also examined the organizational culture of each entity involved.
“I found out that gender did not matter in terms of men or women being seen as great leaders,” Washington says. “Good return on a survey is usually considered about 30 percent. I received a 70 percent response to my survey. I believe this went out at the right time and hit a nerve with executives and those who were reporting to them. It confidentially let leaders know how they were perceived and whether it was the same as they thought.”
Since earning her PhD, Washington has taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses for the Department of Women's Studies at Emory. She also was selected as one of the first Dean’s Teaching Fellows (a program of the Laney Graduate School that supports students who demonstrate excellence in teaching) and has been a research fellow with the Center for Leadership and Career Studies at Goizueta Business School, as well as serving on Emory's President’s Commission on the Status of Women and on the Advisory Council of the CWE. She served as chair of the Executive Advisory Board of the CWE from 2003 to 2004 and now serves on the Emory Board of Visitors.
Inspired by her research findings, Washington turned her dissertation into a book, The Womentor Guide: Leadership for the New Millennium, with co-author Diane Scott Brockington. The women also founded The Womentor Group, a small business specializing in educational consulting and training for women. Washington is co-owner, president, and managing partner of the company, which has clients both within the United States and internationally (womentor.com).
Washington advises women looking for a “womentor” not to expect to find everything they need in one person. “If you find that, you are lucky, but I advise women to put together a ‘mentoring board of directors.’ See what various successful people have to offer and see how that matches what you need the most,” she says. “You can even have dead people on your board. I have several on mine. I look back to them at times when I need wisdom or to be lifted back up from being down. This is a much more workable model of mentorship, and it will help lead you where you need to be.”
In addition to managing the Womentor Group, Washington runs several companies with her husband, Edward Washington, a former thirty-year Coca-Cola executive turned entrepreneur. Under the umbrella of Edward Washington & Associates, the couple manages businesses selling apparel, specially designed promotional items, and concession products, and they provide marketing and sales-consulting services. EWA Beverage Group—a fully owned subsidiary of Edward Washington & Associates—sells private-label bottled water, other beverages, and related products. The company contracts with Emory Healthcare to provide private-label water to all of Emory’s hospitals and clinics and is a preferred provider of organic/fair-trade water, coffee, tea, and related sustainable products to the overall Emory community.
Washington remains closely associated with the CWE, donating both time and money to it. As much as she has given to the center, Washington says she has gotten an equal share back. “If I hadn’t been a part of the women’s center’s birth and helping it grow to young adulthood, I would not be who I am. Being involved with the center afforded me so many opportunities and introduced me to so many people,” she says. “The center is truly my heart at Emory.”
Maria M. Lameiras is senior editor on the staff of Emory Development Communications.